Questions from residents and Almer Township’s engineering firm ruled the day Thursday, prompting the community’s planning commission to delay a key decision regarding the future of a $200 million wind turbine project in Tuscola County.
The Almer Township planning commission held a public hearing regarding a special land use permit application filed by Tuscola III L.L.C, a subsidiary of Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. Such permits must be in place for wind turbines to be constructed.
The meeting was specific to 19 turbines that would be in Almer Township as part of the Tuscola III Wind Energy Park. Plans for the $200 million project call for another 19 turbines in Ellington Township and 17 in Fairgrove Township. The Almer planning commission had three options: recommend the township board approve or deny the application request, or table it.
Thursday’s meeting was held at Caro High School and attended by roughly 100 people.
It began at 7 p.m. and continued beyond 10 p.m., when planning commission chairman Robert Braehm moved to table any further action due to time limitations – but not before Alan Bean, an engineer with Spicer Group pointed out many deficiencies with the application for Tuscola III.
“Just so you understand, we work for the Almer Township planning commission and it is our job to report to them,” Bean said. “They’ve had our staff report for a couple of days. This is a public hearing. We think it’s helpful that the public understand that we’ve gone through it, and that we communicate to you…that there are aspects of the application that are still needed.”
Bean identified a number of issues that need to be addressed by NextEra Energy Resources, including additional information about environmental impact, snow and ice on wind turbine blades, how close wind turbines would be to other structures, security of turbines, and sound.
Earlier in the meeting, NextEra Energy Resources brought a team to the presentation that was lead by Ryan Pumford, project manager.
As in previous presentations, Pumford cited NextEra Energy Resources’ track record of success and promise to be a good neighbor. He said that the project would provide enough energy for 60,000 homes and generate “at least $35 million in tax revenue” over the 30-year life of the project.
“This is a wind project – it has zero emissions and the fuel is always free,” Pumford said, pointing out that individual consumers’ bills can sometimes increase when costs go up for other forms of energy.
Though the application itself is hundreds of pages, the company’s presentation was primarily focused on environmental impact, sound, shadow flicker, decommissioning, and the process for handling complaints.
“Our application complies with all requirements of the current ordinance and any more restrictive provisions of the recently proposed ordinance,” Pumford said. Following NextEra Energy Resources’ presentation was the public comment period that lasted for at least 90 minutes.
Several supported the project and urged the planning commission to move forward.
“They’ve been in compliance with what the law reads, they’ve changed a lot of things, they’ve listened to the people,” said Dave Russell. “I think we should move forward with this project and I’m all for it.”
However, many area residents – including several elected to Almer and Ellington township boards just days prior – said they disagree the application meets the requirements of Almer Township’s current wind ordinance, as property owners who have leases with NextEra Energy Resources were sometimes heard laughing at the concerns, mumbling disparaging comments and in several cases, “booing” them.
Citizens consistently claimed that the Tuscola III application calls for an average sound levels of 45 decibels instead of that being the limit. Many compared it to a vehicle driver being pulled over by police for driving too fast and trying to get out of a ticket by explaining his or her average speed was lower.
“NextEra is playing fast and loose with some definitions,” said Jim Block, an Almer Township property owner. “It’s my understanding you could exceed these (decibel) limits for 72 minutes of unlimited noise for every 24-hour period. That hasn’t been discussed.”
Block and others also questioned why the township would move forward with such a major decision after voters elected four new members Tuesday.
“We have a planning commission seated here tonight that’s a vestige of a board that’s been removed by the people,” Block said. “This planning commission should, with all due respect, delay this process until the new board is in place and then act.”
One particular point of contention was limited access to the safety manual associated with the turbines to be part of Tuscola III, which are to be made by GE per the application.
Though officials from NextEra Energy Resources said they would make the manuals available for review, they also said anyone viewing the manuals would have to set up an appointment, could not make copies or take pictures, and be required to sign a “non-disclosure agreement.”
Many attendees said they felt it was on NextEra Energy Resources officials to essentially tell GE “too bad” if they want to erect 500-foot industrial machines in the community.
“That’s garbage to hear about the safety manual and nondisclosure agreements,” said Russell Speirs, newly elected supervisor of Ellington Township. “It’s for safety. I think we should all be able to see that.
“They need to pressure GE to provide that stuff,” Speirs said. “We’re not going to let GE, whose not even here, control the residents of this township and what we’re subjected to.”
After more than three hours of presentations and public comment, Braehm ended the meeting by tabling it to the next one, which had not been scheduled as of press time.
The decision on whether or not to recommend the project will be made by four members of the seven-member planning commission.
At the beginning of the meeting, Brian Garner, attorney for Almer Township, identified the need to determine if any conflict of interests existed on the board.
Per Almer Township’s planning commission bylaws, he said, potential conflicts of interest exist when board members have a business or financial interest in the property or company involved in the request, owns or has a financial interest in property within 300 feet of the subject of the application, and/or has immediate family that could be impacted by the board’s decisions.
Garner told The Advertiser that the conflict of interest issue applied to Thursday’s meeting because the board was dealing with specific land parcels. When the board was reviewing the township’s ordinance earlier this year, the bylaws didn’t apply because it wasn’t about identified properties.
Darwin Rushlo, Kelly Avery, and Jim Mantey said they had conflicts of interest per the criteria outlined in the planning commission by-laws. Mantey was elected supervisor of Almer Township Tuesday.
Garner told them they were excluded from deliberation and decisions regarding the matter.
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